BioWorld International Correspondent

LYON, France - On the day that French President Jacques Chirac told the BioVision 2001 World Life Sciences Forum in Lyon that biotechnology should be allowed to contribute to feeding the world's hungry, a popular activist opposed to genetically modified crops appeared in court on charges of destroying a crop of transgenic rice.

The rice was planted in southern France by the Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD).

José Bové, president of the Peasants' Confederation, who has also been seen in anti-globalization demonstrations, accused CIRAD of being the "accomplice of the second green revolution, which will kill food-producing agriculture in the world."

At the same time, another pressure group, France Nature Environment, which represents 3,500 environmental associations, is calling on the Agriculture Ministry to furnish it with a full list of the sites where full-field GM crop trials took place last year. They spanned some 300 boroughs and involved 70 different crop types (mainly corn, oil seed rape and sugar beet). For security reasons, however, the ministry has so far revealed only the sites sown in 1999, although it plans to produce a list of last year's plantings in April.

The agricultural applications of biotechnology referred to by President Chirac on Thursday concerned only the Third World, however. "It would be against the fundamental interests of humanity to place a prior ban on altering the characteristics of certain plant species to improve their yield or to make production possible in arid regions or on fragile soil," he argued. "The whole question is how to do it without threatening natural equilibria that are necessary to man."

Biotechnology could even help protect the environment, he said. "In agriculture, for instance, biotechnology will be able to contribute to limiting the use of crop protection products and fertilizers. In industry, it could give rise to applications as varied as cleaning up polluted soils, treating wastewater . . . and developing pollution detection and monitoring tools."

China, for one, clearly believes in the safety of transgenic crops, as Zhanglian Chen, of Beijing University, told the conference. He had come to that conclusion on the strength of five years of field trials and after some 300 million people had consumed food produced from the resulting crops.

In Europe, though, the general public's suspicions and fears had to be "understood and respected," said Chirac. He referred to "a certain mode of secrecy that surrounded the development of genetically modified organisms that was not propitious to creating a climate of confidence. Many people had the feeling that these products were introduced before the necessary studies on their health and environmental effects had been carried out."

Looking ahead to the United Nations' conference on world hunger taking place in Rome in November, Chirac said it should be an "occasion for debating the introduction of GMOs, especially in developing countries. We need to conduct an in-depth evaluation of the advantages, disadvantages and the conditions of use for this type of product. We will have to do that while thinking not only of their effects on the environment and health, but also of the political and economic impact of using products that some fear will lead to the substitution of one kind of dependence for another."

Meanwhile, French farmers, like most of their European counterparts, refuse to grow GM crops because a majority of the population prefers not to eat food with a GM content. The only exception is Spain, where, according to the Swiss company Syngenta, of Basel, there are 25,000 hectares of its GM corn under cultivation.